To Learn to Think in College, Write - a Lot ; Study Links Writing to Intellectual Growth

Article excerpt

Even for the most zealous teacher, a quarter-ton of papers spanning 65 college careers is a daunting sight. But for Nancy Sommers, the 10 file cabinets crammed with red, yellow, green, and blue folders - color-coded for freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years - are a dream that has finally come true.

As head of the expository writing program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Dr. Sommers had always wanted to track students once they moved beyond their first college writing class.

"I saw students making progress within the semester," she says. "But I always wondered what happened to them - and to their writing - after they left my course."

Last month, Sommers began to answer that question with the conclusion of a four-year study of undergraduate writing. It was an undertaking that reaffirmed her faith in the way writing nurtures and nuances thought, provides an intellectual foothold in college, and helps students develop a more intricate sense of themselves.

An academic cornerstone

To Sommers - and to many of the students - writing is the academic cornerstone of college. All Harvard freshmen take a semester of expository writing, a seminar emphasizing close reading, revision, and research, honing analytical skills and laying the groundwork for future Harvard courses.

In addition to its central academic role, Sommers says that writing provides a vital means of affirmation, helping students "write their way into a new home.

"The freshman year is a time of tremendous transition. A lot of those questions get played out in the papers students write." She suggests that, in a time of self-doubt, "writing helps students see that they are contenders, that they can do the work."

Sommers came to Harvard in 1987 as associate director of the Expository Writing Program (known as "Expos"), after teaching English at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In 1993, she became director, propelling America's oldest college writing program into its third century.

Freshmen choose from dozens of Expos classes with titles like "The Culture of Consumption," "Mapping the Mind," and "Love in the Western World" - offerings designed to give them "an intellectual occasion" for writing.

Sommers seized her own occasion in 1996, when she asked the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a grant to study undergraduate writing. She received additional support from the Harvard president's office, and, in the fall of 1997, invited all freshmen to participate in a Web-based survey. Sommers hoped for a 10 percent response rate, and was astounded when one-quarter of the class - 422 students - logged on to share their Expos expectations.

For the next four years, her team of researchers - a dozen assistants, statisticians, programmers, and interviewers - focused on a subsample of 65 students, meeting with them each semester and analyzing every paper they wrote. Last June, that crop graduated from college - and left Sommers with over 500 pounds of essays, theses, poetry, and prose.

Sommers launched her study wondering what role writing plays in undergraduate education, but quickly realized that the role changes yearly, as students embark on increasingly intensive writing projects.

"Freshman writing is often characterized by generalizations and either/or thinking," Sommers says, "but by the senior year, there is a complicated, complex argument sustained throughout. Students first learn to mimic what they learn, and then they go beyond mimicry, beyond the questions of the course, to ask questions of their own."

In Sommers's experience, those questions can launch an astonishing process of self-discovery, as students pursue research of their own choosing and embark on assignments that "help to shape their passions and show them what they're interested in. …